Sat, Apr 25, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Distance learning: A whole new world of studying

From video marking to Second Life, technology is transforming options for online students


There’s not a red pen in sight when Russell Stannard marks his master’s students’ essays — but it’s not because the students never make mistakes. Stannard doesn’t use a pen, or even paper, to give his students feedback. Instead — and in keeping with his role as principal lecturer in multimedia and information and communication technology — he turns on his computer, records himself marking the work onscreen, then e-mails his students the video.

When students open the video, they can hear Stannard’s voice commentary as well as watch him going through the process of marking. The resulting feedback is more comprehensive than the more conventional notes scrawled in the margin, and Stannard, who works at the University of Westminster in London, now believes it has the potential to revolutionize distance learning.

“It started when I began to realize how useful technology can be for teaching,” he says. “I wanted to help other teachers, as well as general computer users, to learn how to use tools like podcasting, PowerPoint and BlackBoard, software that a lot of schools and universities use to allow teachers to provide course material and communicate with students online.”

So he set up a site to teach people how to use the technology, providing simple, video tutorials where users watch Stannard’s mouse pointing out how to use the software, with his voice providing constant commentary. He used the screen-videoing software Camtasia, and the site rapidly took off: It now receives more than 10,000 hits a month.

Then he started considering integrating the teaching style into his own university work.

“I was mainly teaching students on master’s courses in media and technology, and I realized that while I was talking about the benefits of new technology, I should be making the most of the opportunity to use it,” Stannard says. “That’s when I had the idea of video marking. It was immediately well received. Students receive both aural and visual feedback — and while we always talk about different learning styles, there are also benefits to receiving feedback in different ways.”

Stannard says the technology is particularly useful for dyslexic students, who appreciate the spoken commentary, and students learning English as a foreign language.

“I started my teaching career in language learning, so I quickly realized that students learning English would benefit from video marking. They can replay the videos as many times as they like and learn more about reasons for their mistakes,” he says.

Stannard also believes video marking is “perfect” for distance-learning students.

“It brings them much closer to the teacher,” he says. “They can listen, see and understand how the teacher is marking their piece, why specific comments have been made, and so on.”

The technology is already being used for informal distance learning, as Stannard uploads the videos he makes for his lectures at Westminster to multimedia Now 60,000 people a month view the videos.

Online marking is part of a package of new technology that is transforming the face of distance education, from postal services-reliant correspondence courses to online, interactive learning. This is clearly evident on Second Life, the virtual world where users create personalized avatars to interact, which is home to scores of UK universities, with some teaching entire distance-learning modules through the site.

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